Trials of a birdwatcher

One of the perils of being a twticherbirdwatcher is going somewhere, seeing nothing of interest, and then finding that you’ve missed a rarity. This happened to me last week.

Crossbill with its favourite larch cone. Photo: Jaybee

Last Saturday I decided to go to Hamsterley Forest, a largely confierous plantation west of Bishop Auckland. My main aim was to see crossbills – see Jaybee’s photo on the right. I went on an eight mile trek – but it was one of those days when I heard hardly a single chirp in the whole forest. Fortunately, towards the end of the walk I became aware of some activity in a nearby tree, looked up and saw a little flock of ten crossbills, all feeding on larch cones – and not doing a very good job because the cones dropped almost as soon as the birds touched them!

Early the following week I looked on the sightings page of the Durham Bird Club website and saw the following: “Great grey shrike still in Hamsterley Forest at Neighbour Moor” (my emphasis). I looked up Neighbour Moor… and realised I’d passed straight through, without seeing it. I was so chagrined. Consequently, I had only one thought yesterday morning – “I have to see the shrike!”.

While on my way back up through the forest, I happened to pass by a pond, and for some reason my curiosity was piqued. As I got to the edge I was aware of a low reverberating sound, and then of a mass of something about halfway along one side. I wasn’t sure whether it was plant or animal – but when the nearer parts disappeared, I realised it wasn’t a plant. Then through binoculars it all became clear – a large mass of mating frogs! I tried to get closer, but half of them disappeared – but I did get a reasonable photo of the evidence.

Some of the frogs with their spawn: Hamsterley Forest (Click to enlarge)

Great grey shrike, Hamsterley Forest

Neighbour Moor was not far away – the relevant area has recently been cleared of most of the trees. I stood and stared, seeing nothing. Then I was aware of a brief flurry – and there was the shrike, sitting on the top of a pine tree at the edge of the clear-fell, surveying the scene.

Shrikes are fairly rare in this country – the great greys are the commonest, but they are still quite scarce winter visitors. Mainly insect eaters, they also take small birds and mammals – and if they’ve caught too much, they impale their victims on thorns for later consumption- hence their other name of ‘butcher-birds’.

The alternative problem for birdwatchers is declaring a rarity when in fact you’ve misidentified a common bird. I managed to prevent myself doing this last year, when I spotted an unusal-looking brown bird which looked like a bit like a wheatear but the colouring was all wrong. I saw several of them, which puzzled me even further because they weren’t in the bird-book. When I saw one of them being fed by a wheatear, I finally twigged: “Aha, that’ll be the juvenile!”.

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